Creativity: Simplicity, Constraint & Occam’s Razor
Back in the time of Dante, an English Franciscan friar named William of Ockham (1287–1347) invented the ‘lex parsimoniae” , a problem-solving principle that states,
It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.
This is also known as “Occam’s razor”, presumably to cut away unnecessary complication.
In earlier blog posts we discussed the power of decision in the creative process (you can read about this in post-script at the end of this post) but we have not talked about principles to guide this cutting away.
In Occam’s law, we have a candidate principle.
His goal was to understand and defend principles behind divine miracles, miracles of creation. The idea was nascent in the ancient world of Aristotle and Ptolemy, but Occam got the credit, perhaps because he had the backing of the Church.
This “parsimonious law” says that if there are two explanations of something, choose the simplest one.
Thomas Aquinas stated that this was not solely a human choice but rather guided by Nature:
If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments if one suffices.
This simplicity bias is a deep and fundamental bias affecting centuries of philosophy and science. But there is still no proof of its correctness. We collectively hope and believe that it is true, because it would be an aesthetically distasteful world if it weren’t.
But where do aesthetics come from? What makes something appealing or beautiful and something else repulsive?
An evolutionary explanation would claim that it has to do with survival, and that aesthetically pleasing things are positive for life and repulsive things are not.
And could life-positive influences be associated with simplicity as well?
The Power Of Simplicity
Simplicity implies comprehensibility, and comprehensibility implies a short path to action, a method for decision if decision is needed.
A short path to action is valuable if survival depends on making the right decision.
Science loves simple explanations because they are easy to test, and science can only make hay out of falsifiable theories. Without falsification, there is no cutting away, we are adrift and rudderless in an ocean of possibility. This is as perilous for art as it is for science.
Here’s an example of a hypothesis from an old Peanuts cartoon that is not falsifiable:
Lucy: “I have the perfect theory.”
Schroeder: “What’s that?”
Lucy: “Beethoven would have written much better music if he’d been married.”
Schroeder: “Why is that the perfect theory?”
Lucy: “Because it can’t be proven one way or the other.”
Something that can’t be proven one way or the other prohibits a decision from being made. Occam’s razor is dulled.
[Interesting side note: in courts of law we have the presumption of innocence due to the fact that one cannot prove innocence]. Indeed, the more you try to prove your innocence, the more guilty you appear.
But back to our story…
Occam’s Razor is enjoying a renaissance in our age of computers and algorithms and data, as people try to mimic human learning processes with artificial intelligence and to understand and optimize that process.
Many aspects of explanation and simplicity can be quantified in the context of computer programs and data, and Occam’s Razor is getting a good sharpening as a result.
But Albert Einstein cautioned against going whole hog on the simplicity theme. The “Einstein Constraint” has often been paraphrased as
A model of the world should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.
In other words, you can overdo it. There is a sweet spot that needs to be found, reminiscent of the Goldilocks Zone in a previous post.
But what does art have to do with models of nature?
I submit to you that every work of artistic creativity is a tiny world unto itself that has to “make sense” in a self-consistent way, just as we attempt to make sense of Nature with scientific laws and principles.
This “making sense” in art is about getting at and creating meaning.
I was at an art talk in Maine by a noted New York art critic. He offhandedly mentioned an artist whose work he admired. He noted that the artist made a point of stating that his work has no meaning.
I raised my hand and said: “I can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s line: Methinks she (he) doth protesteth too much. It’s interesting to me that he says his work has no meaning, yet it’s meaningful to the artist to insist that his art has no meaning.”
The art critic agreed.
An Ecology Of Relationships
Like the little asteroid in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, each work of art is a whole ecology of relationships that has to work together to be meaningful, to take us in, to suspend disbelief that the art(-ificial) world is not “real.”
Art is by definition artificial, that is to say, human-made as contrasted to the natural world.
We suspend disbelief because it’s not the natural world, but it has to be consistent like the natural world.
Our aesthetics come from the natural world because our imperative is survival.
We watch a movie or a play or read a novel. We know that it’s fiction but we suspend disbelief and allow ourselves to be fully absorbed and moved by the art if it meets certain conditions.
- It’s self consistent.
- It makes sense on some level.
- It’s not true but it could be true.
In essence, Art mirrors life.
St. Exupéry also said,
Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
As a creative, how do you find your way to something compelling and aesthetic?
If we accept that aesthetics, like Occam’s Razor, is rooted in Nature and survival, we need to be parsimonious in our use of resources.
As the Emperor Joseph II of Austria complained famously about Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro that there were “too many notes”, in painting, this manifests as “Don’t lick the paint”, “Don’t put everything and the kitchen sink into one painting” and “Get in and get out.”
Creatives often employ constraints to achieve aesthetic effects and to make the process of sense-making more straightforward: Special scales in music, a limited palette in some paintings, a subset of possible dance moves in choreography, certain lighting and camera angles in cinematography to name a few.
As the great polymath Leonardo Da Vinci said:
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
With gratitude from my studio to yours,
P.S. My new book is here.
When you purchase the book, you can register for the complimentary Creativity Immersion Program, a 5 day workshop exploring 5 foundational pillars of creativity.
Pair this with the Daily Creativity & Affirmations, for 365 days of encouragement!
You get this complimentary program when you purchase The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal.
Register at nancyhillis.com/bigcreativity.
You’ll get 365 days of Creativity Prompts and Affirmations to inspire you in your big, juicy creative life.
A Sample of Daily Creativity & Affirmations from Days 1 &2 of the Program
Postscript (from my talk: The Artist’s Journey Is A Hero’s Journey on stage at Author Advantage LIVE).
It’s the miracle of saying yes and it’s the moment that you bring something to life.
The moment you say Yes, the moment you begin anything, the moment you go from zero to one, you’re bringing it to life and other possibilities fall away.
This is vital to creation, to realize that there are constraints, that you’re making a decision when you’re a creative and other possibilities fall away.
But others open up and within that decision, and this comes from the Latin word decidere, and it means to cut through, to cut off.
So you have to cut off things in order to open up something new.
And I believe that this is also speaking about the vital ideas that constraint and specificity are essential to creativity.
If you look at all visual patterns together.
You’ll just get white snow.
You’ll get chaos if all sounds are heard together.
It’s just noise, that kind of white noise that is not art.
Art depends upon decision.
Creativity is connected to uniqueness, and uniqueness is exquisitely connected to choice.
It’s all connected. Your choices carve out your identity on your journey of self expression, and this relies upon trusting yourself.
This is navigating the landscape of trusting yourself, believing in what it is that’s inside of you that you need to express and only you can express and it’s also believing that there are paths for you that will open up and you may not be able to see them yet.
But they’re there for you and they will unfold.